Freeze Me

Film Theory

Horror, Genre, Gender

“What the action film mystifies, the horror film confesses”
(Carol Clover, film theorist)

Horror has occupied center stage in film theory.  It has inspired some of the key ideas concerning cinematic gaze and signifiers of gender role.  The site of suspenseful pleasure in watching horror has been linked to tension set up by looking from the opposed perspectives of monster and victim.  Accordingly, a major role of the on-screen protagonist in horror narratives may be to register anticipation and, by so doing, to become a fearful watcher.  The protagonist’s watching, in turn, provides an opportunity for the film’s audience to vicariously experience the thrill of primal apprehension.  The protagonist’s watching of the fate of other characters engenders anxiety about their own impending fate.  Implicitly, the audience that watches the film’s protagonist is thereby led to contemplate what might ultimately befall them also.

A Night in Nude
In addition to being observers of on-screen threats to others, audiences of horror films ever since Hitchcock’s 1960 film “Psycho” have themselves also been deliberately assaulted from the screen.  As Hitchcock revealingly claimed, if one “designed a picture correctly in terms of its emotional impact, the Japanese audience would scream at the same time as the Indian audience.”  However, such a purely technical analysis appears to emphasize the universality of shock over cultural specificity of what constitutes the uncanny.  For instance, despite numerous precedents that established females as the designated victims in horror, by 1993 it was nonetheless possible for a battered woman “Nami Tsuchiya” (Kimiko Yo) – rather than a male predator – to be the one slashing through the shower curtain to kill a man taking a shower, in Takashi Ishii’s “Nudo no yoru” (“A Night In Nude”).  The key factor here, of course, is that by the 1990s a cinematic dialog between gender and the portrayal of victimization had eventually allowed Japanese horror to escape the confines of “pinku” exploitation and embrace the possibility of full-on female vengeance.
Chaos, Kairo
Nevertheless, there are structural similarities between Western and Asian horror productions that appear to offer some support for Hitchcock’s contention.  Perhaps more than most film genres, horror seems to have attained a measure of intercultural status.  Unlike many other low-genre Asian films, there is a definite Western market for contemporary Japanese horror.  Recent films that launched the current genre conventions of J-Horror such as “Joyû-rei” (“Don’t Look Up,” 1996) and  “Ringu” (“Ring,” 1998) returned to traditions of the uncanny as portrayed in “The Exorcist” or “The Omen” rather than emulating the then-popular Hollywood “slasher” sub-genre, as director Hideo Nakata has observed.  Nakata’s “Ringu” (1998) and Shimizu’s “Ju-on” (“The Grudge,” 2003) are particularly noteworthy since they have inspired direct Hollywood re-makes helmed by the original Japanese directors, as well as Japanese-language sequels.  Other re-make projects include Nakata’s “Kaosu” (“Chaos,” 1999) and “Honogurai mizu no soko kara” (“Dark Water,” 2002) or Kurosawa’s “Kairo” (“Pulse,” 2001).
Inner Senses, Bloody Beach
There also appears to be general interplay between the narrative and cinematic conventions of certain popular American horror films such as “The Sixth Sense,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Mothman Prophecies” or “Control” and Asian titles such as Chi-Leung Law’s “Ye do hung gaan” (“Inner Senses,” 2002) the “Honto ni atta” video series, Oxide and Danny Pang’s “Jian gui” (“The Eye,” 2002) and Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Alive” (2002).  Commercially influential Hollwood teen slasher films such as the “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” franchises have inspired a number of Asian narrative imitations such as Hitoshi Ishikawa’s “Shuudan satsujin club” (“Big Slaughter Club,” 2003), Gi-hun Kim and Jong-seok Kim’s “Zzikhimyeon jukneunda” (“The Record,” 2000) or In-soo Kim’s “Haebyeoneuro gada” (“Bloody Beach,” 2000).
Onibaba, Lady Snowblood
Although the form and conventions of film horror may therefore seem increasingly intercultural, the ubiquity of cinematic elements such as gaze, eyes and anticipatory looking need not unconditionally suggest the nature of the threat to be looked at.  Much Western theorizing about horror films is inspired by psychoanalysis, and not surprisingly ascribes the wellsprings of filmic threat to coded sexual differences.  Thematically, horror is thought to adhere to situations involving either submission to female power or the threat of sexual indeterminacy.  In keeping with this perspective, the enervated samurai in Kaneto Shindô’s “Onibaba” (1964), for example, are ambushed and killed, their bodies discarded into a bottomless hole that serves as a clear symbol of the horrific power of female sexuality.  Indeed, one alternate title for “Onibaba” is “The Hole.”  The case for sexual indeterminacy might be made in the example of Toshiyo Fujita’s “Shurayikihime” (“Lady Snowblood,” 1973).  Although not conventionally regarded as a horror text, references are made in this film to “Yuki Kashima’s” status as a potentially demonic “child” or “blizzard” from the “netherworld.”  Cover artwork for various video versions of this film consistently combine phallic imagery of “Yuki’s” sword grip with abject bloodying of her white kimono.  One release adds the boundary-violating injunctions to “Feel like a beast,” “Become a beast,” “Die a beast.”  Meiko Kaji’s unmatched realization of “Yuki” seems the exemplar of film theory’s powerful phallic woman – conspicuous possessor of the gaze, master of the sword, coldly beautiful, flawlessly poised, unapproachably ruthless.  Were her serial vengeance killings to be narrated from the perspective of their victims, comparison with slasher texts might be suggested.  The character of “Masami” (Sumiko Mikami) in Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s “Kichiku dai enkai” (“Banquet of the Beasts,” 1997) uses sexuality as a means of overt control over her male gang members, leading to paranoia, madness and violence – the imagined horrific consequences of uncontrolled female sexual power.  This graphic film also directly equates such expression of female power with literal male castration.
Banquet of the Beasts
The question is not whether such readings can be applied to horror, but whether they exhaust the range of possible gender meanings.  More specifically, given that the recent wave of “post-Ringu” Asian horror films may be more strongly influenced by Japanese cultural and narrative emphases than by Hollywood horror conventions, differing readings of gender construction may also be invited.  Do women act and react within Asian horror texts in ways assigned to female characters by Western film theory?  Common sense – and cultural awareness – suggest not always.  Additionally, might other themes such as obligation, honor or loss of identity occasionally trump sexuality as the locus of the uncanny in Japanese horror narratives in a manner analogous to certain sub-genres of Asian female action films?
Lady Snowblood, Onibaba
Western film theory proposes that both horror and action film involve preliminary extremes of suffering by the protagonist that are resolved by retaliatory vengeance.  The theme of vengeance reverberates through female roles in both Japanese horror and action films, from Kaneto Shindô’s folklore-inspired “Yabu no naka no kuroneko” (“The Black Cat in the Bush,” 1968) to Hajime Hashimoto’s post-modern fable of yakuza comeuppance “Gokudô no onna-tachi: Jôen” (“Gang Wives:  Flame of Love,” 2005).  The latter title features a convention-subverting merger of traditional and modern notions of honor and revenge embodied by the characters of Reiko Takashima and Aya Sugimoto.  For Western cinema, on the other hand, a defining feature is that such narratives are typically differentiated by gender, and are separately experienced by female and male characters in horror and action, respectively.
On these grounds, Western film horror might be theorized as an approximation to a “women’s action film.”  The slasher film narrative, in particular, is commonly read as a “hero plot” constructed around the suffering of the principal female protagonist (the “Final Girl”) and her ultimately successful confrontation with a monstrous enemy.  The typical absence of graphic sexual assault in Western horror is often considered sufficient to demarcate this from female vengeance plots, and graphic sexual assault is indeed often found in Japanese female vengeance titles.  In films such as Daisuke Yamanouchi’s “Senketsu no kizuna:  Kichiku reipuhan o shinkan saseta shimai” (“Blood Sisters,” 2000), this can be foregrounded to such an extent that it overwhelms the vengeance narrative and becomes, in effect, justified by (rather than justification for) the eventual retaliation.  Perhaps the theoretical conventions of separation entertained by Western film theory conceal the remnants of a broader cinematic and cultural reluctance to directly embrace the stark, primal underpinnings of horror – sex and violence – in an effort to remain above the low genres of exploitation.
Blood Sisters
In Western film theory, violence in horror has been treated as a symbolic alternative for sexual assault (and, perhaps, for sexuality more generally), leading some influential theorists such as Carol Clover to propose that the slasher film delivers the “opened body” in a fetishized manner that portrays expressed female desire as monstrous and post-coital death as the cost of illicit sex.  These are obviously different thematic concerns than those of the female vengeance narrative, despite superficial similarity in plot construction.  Another key difference identified by Clover is that the audience experience of horror largely ceases at the point the Final Girl unmasks or directly confronts her assailant.  This phase typically follows relatively familiar conventions of action “muscle drama” in which the successful combat of the Final Girl closely resembles that of the typical male action hero.  From this perspective, her victory restores the normal patriarchal, “phallocentric” order as well as delivering her into the “adult” world.  It is not as evident that these arguments apply to the more troubling vengeance narrative.
Freeze Me, Black Angel
When consideration of such subtleties is turned to Japanese horror films, a number of differences seem evident.  First, Asian action films in general have long privileged female protagonists in ways that Western action films have not, suggesting there may be fewer obvious points of demarcation with horror.  Both might have an essentially comparable address with respect to gender.  Second, the female vengeance film in Japanese cinema is not as clearly bracketed off from horror as a separate (and lower) sub-genre.  Takashi Ishii’s horror hit “Freeze Me” (2000) seems clearly related to “Ms. 45” while Ishii’s own filmography includes both the superior “Girls With Guns” title “Kuro no tenshi” (“Black Angel,” 1997) and its sequel, as well as the screenplay for the violently misogynistic “Shiryo no wana” (“Evil Dead Trap,” 1988).  Takashi Miike brought his extensive experience directing masculine action films to craft “Ôdishon” (“Audition,” 1999) – arguably one of the most disturbing female vengeance films ever made.  Finally, within its recognized censorship limits, Japanese low genre cinema has been generally quite frank in its depiction of sexuality – both typical and aberrant.  There may be fewer grounds for cultivating audience expertise in reading coded sexuality as found in typical Western horror, and many Japanese horror titles could easily be described as blatantly sadistic in their conflation of sexuality and violence.
Audition, Evil Dead Trap
In a culture that creates public space for commercial exploitation of sexuality, practices widespread occupational gender discrimination, and provides “women only” commuter rail carriages during rush hour as well as hentai warning notices to protect women from assault, the stakes and cultural politics of sexuality and gender may assume different proportions.  It might also be important to remain alert to the fetishistic possibilities of Orientalist myths as factors contributing to the popularity of J-Horror in Western markets.  The prominence of women as victims and avengers in horror constitutes a potential nexus for several enduring fantasy stereotypes.
Freeze Me, All Night Long
Japanese films are given prominence in this essay due to their current acknowledged commercial and artistic success as well as substantial influence on other cinemas.  If the slasher film has recently sustained the horror genre in Hollywood, as film author Jim Harper has suggested, might this reflect fundamental differences in the Japanese and Western realization of horror oeuvres?  The Korean film critic Chang-soo Pae certainly thinks so, and observes, "For Japanese, the real horror lies not in mindless butchering of bodies, but in the psyche of human beings.  And the directors of the genre there know how to take advantage of that to really get under the viewers' skin."